If there’s a more iconic and versatile cocktail garnish than the cherry, I don’t know about it — and you can keep your “twist” to yourself. When it comes to an edible treat at the bottom of your glass, there’s really nothing better than a high-grade cocktail cherry.
Like all cocktail ingredients, the cherry has gone through some tough times and come out the other end as a craft ingredient. You can thank the more widespread availability of amarena and marasca cherries for that — these are smaller, sour cherries that offer more nuance than the ultra-sweet, garden-variety maraschinos that bobbed in your Shirley Temple.
The market is flooded with cherries these days, and you’ll find you have tons of obscure terminology to learn if you really want to master the category. Here’s a quick primer on what’s what:
Marasca – The Marasca is a variety of the Morello cherry which is native to Croatia. Small and sour, these are commonly preserved in a dense sugar syrup which sweetens them up a lot. Marasca cherries are frequently referred to as Luxardo cherries, though that is actually a brand name of Marascas.
Amarena – Another small, sour cherry native to Italy, very similar to Marascas, with which they can be used interchangeably.
Maraschino – A highly loaded term. Maraschino refers to maraschino liqueur (which is itself made from marasca cherries), and maraschino cherries were originally cherries preserved in the liqueur. The name was widely co-opted, and you’ll see “maraschino” on all kinds of products, including upscale marasca cherries and the chemical-plumped hyper-red variety that are the staple of the dive bar. The term “maraschino cherry” effectively no longer has any meaning, but when a “maraschino cherry” is called for, the typical connotation is the supermarket variety.
“Brandied” Cherries – The term “brandied cherry” refers to a cherry preserved in maraschino liqueur (aka cherry brandy), but in reality there are virtually no actual brandied cherries on the market. Even the companies that produce maraschino liqueur do not use maraschino in their maraschino cherries! You will find a few “whiskey” cherries on the market, but these use whiskey in small portions as a (mild) flavoring agent; they don’t contribute a significant character to the product. When you see “brandied cherry” in a cocktail recipe today, use a Marasca or Amarena.
Griottines – This is perhaps the only exception to the previous paragraph: Griottines are France’s take on morello cherries, and they are preserved in actual Kirsch (cherry brandy). We reviewed a brand of Griottines many years ago but were unable to reach the company to request a fresh jar for this roundup.
Which cherry should you use in your cocktail? Whichever strikes your fancy, which is why we’re delving into as much of the market as we could get our hands on, 14 options in all ranging from the bottom of the (cherry) barrel to some of the most premium options on the market. Below you’ll find them all, ranked starting with our favorite.
But before we get into that, a word about refrigeration: Many cocktail cherries offer instructions on the label not to refrigerate them after opening. Why? Because in some cases the sugar in the syrup tends to crystalize in the fridge, turning the contents of the jar into a gloopy, congealed mess. I’ve always kept mine refrigerated (no matter what the label says), and this has never happened to me — but I know it has for others. Any cocktail cherry will last longer in the fridge vs. the cupboard before going bad — but if you do experience this problem, check the fine print. In general, the higher the sugar content, the more likely this problem will be — but I keep all my cherries in the fridge.
Note that all cherries are unstemmed unless noted otherwise.
Luxardo Original Maraschino Cherries – Marasca cherries in syrup, from Italy. 400g jar. Do not refrigerate. Small, dark color, firm cherries with an initial rush of sugar followed by a significant tartness. There’s simply nothing to complain about with these, which is why they’re the standard for the style, with excellent balance between sweet and sour that takes you on a miniature journey. Extremely versatile, they’re just the right size for cocktailing. A / $17 ($4.25/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Bourbon Cocktail Cherries – Cherries in a very light syrup, with bourbon and natural color added, from Oregon. (Jack Rudy says that all of its cherries do contain alcohol in the finished product, but there’s no indication of abv on the label; I doubt it’s much.) 237ml jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Cherries vary in size/texture: Medium to large, medium color, medium firm to very firm. Cherries are stemmed. For the most part these taste like fresh cherries, lightly sweetened up with just a touch of sugar. They’re not at all cloying the way some cocktail cherries can be, but they’re not at all sour, either. Instead they come across with a distinct freshness that can brighten up a cocktail. Great for muddling. A- / $18 (~$5.50/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Blanton’s Bourbon Cocktail Cherries – These are made by Jack Rudy and branded with the Blanton’s name — but my suspicion is that they are exactly the same product. Again they are Oregon cherries in a very light syrup, with bourbon (Blanton’s is not specified) and natural color added, from Oregon. Alcohol is present. 473ml jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Again medium to large, medium color, medium firm to very firm (depending on the cherry). Cherries are stemmed. They taste exactly the same as Jack Rudy’s signature offering, so see above for notes. Great value if you can find these larger jars. A- / $21 (~$3.20/100 grams)
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Cherries – Cherries in a very light syrup, with Woodford Reserve bourbon and natural flavor added. 383g jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Large, dark color, medium firmness. Cherries are stemmed. These are a bit on the tart side, with less sweetness than in most other products. They do burst however with black cherry flavor, though perhaps this has been doctored a bit? No real hint of Woodford, alas. Great muddlers. A- / $19 ($4.96/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Sagamore Spirit Rye Whiskey Cherries – Made by Jack Rudy and branded with Sagamore Spirit — but these cherries do note that Sagamore’s Rye is used in the (light) syrup. Again, natural color added. The jar notes a 4.5% abv. 473ml jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Medium to large in size, medium color, very firm. Cherries are stemmed. These have an extreme similarity to the other Jack Rudy products, though here I get a hint of grape flavor in addition to the straightforward, fresh cherry note. See above for more notes. A- / $NA
Maraska Maraschino Cocktail Cherries – Candied Marasca cherries in syrup, from Croatia. 400g jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Moderate in size, dark color, moderate firmness. Quite sweet, almost pruny at times, with notes of plum jam and licorice, but otherwise uncomplicated. B+ / $17 ($4.25/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Starlino Maraschino Cherries – Marasca cherries in syrup, from Italy. 400g jar. Do not refrigerate. Quite large, dark color, semi-firm cherries. Boldly flavored with chocolate notes and elements of brown sugar and cinnamon. Sweet but not overwhelming, with a long, lightly sour finish. B / $15 ($3.75/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Amarena Fabbri Cherries – Wild Amarena cherries in syrup, from Italy. 230g jar. Do not refrigerate. Small cherries, dark color, medium firmness. Quite sweet in comparison to other high-end cocktail cherries (sugar is the first ingredient on the label), with a strawberry-like character on the finish. Quite expensive. B / $14 ($6.09/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Collins Maraschino Stemmed Cherries – Cherries in a light corn syrup. 283g jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Large, bright red color, firm cherries. Cherries are stemmed. These are your classic Shirley Temple style cherries, plumped up impossibly with FD&C Red #40. Surprisingly they taste pretty good, but the impact on the palate is closer to Hawaiian Punch than an actual cherry. B / $4 ($1.41/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Filthy Black Cherries – Amarena cherries in syrup, from Italy. 226g jar. Do not refrigerate. Small cherries, very dark color, medium firmness. Dusky and a bit earthy, with distinct notes of spices and chocolate. Less flavorful than some of the others, with a lingering sweetness on the finish. B / $15 ($6.64/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Collins Bourbon Stemmed Cherries – Another style from Collins (see above): Cherries in a light syrup plus Heritage Brown Sugar Bourbon. (Like Jack Rose, these do contain some amount of alcohol.) 312g jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Large, dark color, firm cherries. Cherries are stemmed. Very sweet, with flavors of black cherry overpowered by notes of raisiny currants. The boldly jammy finish makes me think of zinfandel wine. B- / $12 ($3.85/100 grams)
Traverse City Premium Cocktail Cherries – Cherries in syrup with blackcurrant extract, cherry concentrate, and bourbon (no alcohol), from Michigan. 800g jar. Do not refrigerate. Medium-sized, dark color, very firm cherries, with the distinct flavor of currants and notes of vanilla. What doesn’t come through clearly at all: cherry flavor. B- / $18 ($2.25/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON]
Star Maraschino Cherries with Stems – The control group: Supermarket cherries in water and corn syrup. 255g jar. Do refrigerate after opening. Medium-sized, ultra-bright red color, medium firmness. Cherries are stemmed. This iconic maraschino is decidedly candylike in flavor, though it has more in common with strawberry than any real from-the-tree cherry I’ve tasted. Harmless but wholly uninteresting. C / $3 ($1.18/100 grams)
Ole Smoky Moonshine Cherries – Cherries soaking in 100 proof moonshine (50/50 in the container). 750ml jar. Clearly these need no refrigeration. Large, hyper-bright red color, medium firmness. A hint of ’70s-style Shirley Temple sweetness is immediately followed by an overwhelming booziness — which is exactly what I was expecting. Not a lot of nuance here, with petrol flavors lingering for ages. Best for bar bets, not craft cocktails. C- / $22 ($2.10/100 grams) [BUY IT NOW FROM TOTAL WINE]